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An American Engineer in Afghanistan

An American Engineer in Afghanistan

FROM THE LETTERS AND NOTES OF A. C. Jewett
edited by MARJORIE JEWETT BELL
Copyright Date: 1948
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 342
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttt1d3
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  • Book Info
    An American Engineer in Afghanistan
    Book Description:

    An American Engineer in Afghanistan was first published in 1948. The legend of Afghanistan as “The Forbidden Country” grew chiefly from a warning of the British Indian Government which once guarded the Afghan frontier north of the Khyber Pass -- “It is absolutely forbidden to cross this border into Afghanistan.” A glance at the endsheet map in this book will recall its strategic position in the Middle East. When A. C. Jewett entered in 1911 with an escort supplied for his safe transportation to Kabul, he was the first American permitted to live in the country since 1880. He was employed by Habibullah Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan, to take charge of installing a hydroelectric plan, and it was during this stay that the first attempts toward modernization were made in Afghanistan. Although he came for only a year, it was eight years before his work was completed. Electrical apparatus had to be hauled over rough mountain passes. The work elephants’ harnesses had to be made by hand. Labor was not skilled and whenever crops were harvested, his deliveries of supplies stopped! Written in a lively, readable style, Jewett’s letters and journal notes tell the story of the land of the Afghans. An isolated country of ancient caravan trails, mull-walled caravansaries, and villages -- it was little touched by Western ideas in the last days of the old monarchy. But forces have been unleashed in Asia which even remote Afghanistan is unlikely to escape. Jewett’s entertaining story will help westerners to understand coming events.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6146-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  3. On the Road to Kabul
    (pp. 1-14)

    THE Khyber Pass is open only on Tuesday and Friday. I left Peshawar on Friday, May 26. My kit, a train of sixteen yabus (pack horses or ponies), left the day before, loaded with my personal effects and a year’s supplies — everything from a toothbrush to a bath tub, and from lemon extract and yeast cakes to a sack of Delhi flour, forty gallons of kerosene, bed, bedding, camp chairs, and tables. I also had a riding pony, a mehmandar, or guest entertainer, and every necessary servant, all kindly supplied by His Majesty, Habibullah Khan, for my safe transport...

  4. Kabul
    (pp. 15-21)

    KABUL, the capital of Afghanistan, lies on a fertile plain enclosed on three sides by bare, rugged mountains. It has occupied a position of strategic importance from earliest times, dominating the valley and many of the great caravan routes which pass through Central Asia.

    From the heights on the southeast, Bala Hissar (Upper Fort) still overlooks the city, but only crumbling walls remain to show its former strength. According to a treaty the British made with Afghanistan, the fort was to be dismantled and left unoccupied. It is so today.

    Broken walls and bastions mark as well the region where...

  5. Jabal-us-Siraj, Mountain of Light
    (pp. 22-29)

    IN 1910, the Amir Habibullah Khan of Afghanistan bought the machinery and material for a hydroelectric plant from an English firm, through their Indian agent. My services to act as chief engineer in charge of the work for the Amir were obtained through the company that supplied the electrical machinery. At this time, I had but recently returned from Kashmir to the United States, having just completed the installation of a hydroelectric project for the Kashmir government.

    The site of the powerhouse is at Jabal-us-Siraj, in Kohistan, fifty miles north of Kabul by road. The purpose of the plant is...

  6. The Old Man with the White Beard
    (pp. 30-35)

    WHEN it began to freeze in November I made a new survey for the transmission line forty-one miles across country — was nine days between Jabal-us-Siraj and here, and had some experiences. I had to solder clips on a steel wire in imitation of steel tapes, for they measure with a cotton rope and a pin like a picket pin. My outfit consists of a malik who is familiar with the district and is a judge as well, with a firman from the mustofi saying that I was to be a guest wherever I stopped, a mehmandar, an interpreter, a...

  7. Winter Quarters
    (pp. 36-40)

    JABAL-US-SIRAJ, the site of the old city of Parwan, is just at the foot of the Hindu Kush and there are high white walls on all sides. From the tower window in the fort I can see nearly twenty miles down the Kohistan valley toward Kabul. The Afghan winter is a naked one. Just now everything is a wilderness of snow, dead white. There are no evergreens; the mountains are bare and the trees in the valley are chiefly mulberry; in fact, dried mulberries form one of the chief winter foods. The Afghan mostly hibernates in winter, and I expect...

  8. A Telephone Message
    (pp. 41-45)

    I HAD one break this winter. A week ago I received word by post that His Majesty, who is in Jalalabad, desired to speak to me by telephone from Kabul. There’s the one line from Kabul to Jalalabad — a hundred miles. A messenger also brought shoes for my horse for walking on ice, by order of the mustofi, who very kindly made all the arrangements for my trip and entertainment.

    On the third of February I left Jabal-us-Siraj with only a small escort: the chief of police and his brother, a ressala of three or four, Mirza Malik Shah,...

  9. A Guest Is a Friend for Three Days
    (pp. 46-49)

    I HAVE just returned from my trip in to telephone His Majesty from Kabul. ’Twas warmer on the way back. Three days to go fifty miles, but you are limited by the speed of the yabus, and then there is always the guard; otherwise with a change of horses or two it could easily be done in a day. I stopped two nights on the way and had my friend Mohammad Azim Khan for company — nice old gentleman. There are as many here as there are millionaires in Milpetas.* He used to be a colonel in the Afghan army...

  10. From the Tower Room of the Old Fort
    (pp. 50-66)
    A. C. Jewett

    A LITHOGRAPHED newspaper,Siraj ul Akhbar, has recently been started in Kabul. I have the first copy; it contains translations from the English papers. I cannot read much but the date and a few headlines — the language is too highfalutin for me. You see Afghanistan is very progressive.

    When I came back from Kabul I had some surveying to do for His Majesty. One day I had moved the instrument ahead, and the sapper who was holding the rod was facing the other way; I sang out to him in my best Persian, “Oho! Sapper Miner, eyes of you...

  11. Special Runners Carry the Amir’s Dak
    (pp. 67-69)
    A. C. Jewett

    THE Afghan dak walla carries the mail packet and has an adventurous route which takes him over lonely roads infested by bandits, into bazaars where the shopkeepers bargain vociferously with their customers, across long stretches of silent plains uninhabited except for wolves. One night he may lie down in a crowded sarai with caravans of camels and Hindu merchants on their way to Persia; another time he may be eating pilau and kabob in the home of some friends.

    Two dak wallas on the Turkestan-Kabul route arrived here in the snow at Jabal-us-Siraj. One was armed with a sword, and...

  12. The Rural Kohistanis
    (pp. 70-75)

    FROM Jabal-us-Siraj one can look southeast across the Kohistan valley for twenty miles to the mountains. The river Salang lies in the foreground, the Nilu on one side, and the Ghorband on the other. Above the Salang is a typical mountain home — all occupied by one family of three generations, comprising about thirty people. It is built into the barren slope in three large sections, one above the other; and below near the river is a group of mulberry trees and a little patch of cultivated ground.

    A typical Afghan village lies in the valley on the right bank...

  13. Idling at Baber Sarai
    (pp. 76-81)

    THE Baber sarai and its garden Baber Bagh lie in the Chardeh Valley just outside of Kabul. Nearby on one side the hills rise sharply, crowned by old fortifications which once guarded this entrance to the city, the Sheer Darwaza or Lion’s Gate. Across the valley Ishmai Hill stands out like a sentinel, the remains of an old wall still reaching to its highest point. Bemaru Heights lie in the distance above Kabul, and nearer are the machine shops and woolen mills along the Kabul River, which flows through this gate or gap in the hills.

    Behind high walls in...

  14. Abdur Rahman, the Durani Chief
    (pp. 82-85)

    COMING through the Lion’s Gate to the Ark, one sees the domed mausoleum of Abdur Rahman, ruthless Amir of Afghanistan (1880 - 1901). Directly under the dome in a bare and spacious sanctuary stands his tomb of variegated marble, with a large open Koran on display nearby.

    Abdur Rahman consolidated Afghanistan and exiled to India a good many families who were inimical to his house, though the present Amir, Habibullah Khan, has allowed many of these, mostly the second generation, to return to Kabul. He fined the districts in which robberies were committed so heavily that robbery did not pay....

  15. In the Service of His Majesty
    (pp. 86-115)

    TO GO back a little: after waiting two and one-half months in Kabul for a couple of interviews with His Majesty (and another that did not come off; you see, H.M. had a slight attack of the gout and severe indisposition, so he could do no work — this was unfortunate, but the will of Allah), finally, His Majesty issued written orders. I left for here on the thirteenth of July with 516 “suffering” miners, including 122 officers. The officers consist of a commandant, six kaptans, fifteen subadars, two majors, two surgeons, twelve kot hawalahdars, eight havildars. The “commidant” gets...

  16. The Better Moon
    (pp. 116-118)

    MAY you be in good health!

    “One evening at the close of Ramazan ere the better moon arose.” Do you know your Omar? This is the last day, and they will all be out looking for the moon of deliverance, as soon as it can be seen this evening. There will be feasting for three days, the Id, the great festival.

    After the fast everyone dresses in his best clothes; if he has only one suit he washes it clean for the occasion. Friends meeting after the close of the fast embrace and exchange blessings, saying, “Mubarak bashi!” Then follows...

  17. The Way of a King at the Kabul Court
    (pp. 119-129)

    HIS Majesty sent word by the Esteemed Mustofi-al-Mamalik last week that thirty carts of electric plant had arrived in Kabul, and that I was to send one of my assistants in to find out where it was to go, or come in myself. The mustofi would bring whoever came in his car and send him back the next day. I concluded to go myself. The Esteemed was to take me to his home.

    We got away about eleven o’clock and stopped for tiffin at a malik’s, an old friend of mine, Mohammad Azim Khan, who used to be a colonel...

  18. A Firman for Leave
    (pp. 130-158)

    AFTER royal kindness be it Know to Esteemed Mr. A. C. Jewett, Chief Engineer, Jabal-us-Siraj H. E. Powers, that we have the pleasure to sanction your two months’ leave. The Foreigners’ Office has been ordered to make your arrangements before December 21, 1912, the date on which you will stop the work for the winter, so that you may not have to stay in Kabul very long. When you finish your two months’ leave, you have to try your best, also, to reach Peshawar in time, and you will find everything ready for you on your return, so that in...

  19. Jalalabad
    (pp. 159-176)

    JALALABAD, with a population of about five thousand, becomes a city of importance for a few months during the winter. The city proper, with its narrow and dirty streets enclosed in mud walls, is situated half a mile from the right bank of the Kabul River. Besides the Amir and his court, many thousands gather here on its sunny plain to escape the snow and cold of the uplands. But the summer traveler finds Jalalabad most unpleasant with its intense heat, disagreeable dust storms, brackish water, and millions of houseflies. Outside the city are the palaces where the Amir resides...

  20. The Turkish Hajji
    (pp. 177-190)

    MY KIT was packed and ready to leave by seven, but the gari keshes came without their yabus and said they had no money; even tried to work me for some. I don’t blame the poor devils though. They think I’m lying when I tell them I’ll give them some baksheesh in Peshawar — I’d be a fool to before we got there. Although my guard was sent for the yabus, this little side show delayed our starting till nine, making it too late to reach Basawal. On my way up last May I camped under the trees here at...

  21. On Leave in India
    (pp. 191-195)

    MY FRIEND Atkinson, who worked for me in Kashmir, met me with his trap in Lahore and we drove out to his bangala, the Aville, in time to bathe and change for dinner. Seems good to see ladies in evening dress again, smart servants, and a well-appointed house, and to be able to sit down to a good dinner.

    My two months’ leave is going fast. I went to Cawnpore and from there to Bombay, where I didn’t have a minute’s time between working on His Majesty’s new scheme and shopping.

    When I was surveying in Jalalabad, I told His...

  22. The Elephant Carts Are Coming
    (pp. 196-205)

    ON JUNE 24, I heard that the elephant carts had reached Tutundara, two krohs from here, where there are three fairly large canals with country-made bridges of wooden poles across them. I had ridden over the week before to see them and had given orders to have the water turned out of the canals and the bridges shored up from underneath when the transport came along. Mohammad Yusuf, the Khan of Tutundara, had made a pretty fair job of it.

    You will remember that I passed these carts in the Khyber Pass when I was on leave in January —...

  23. The Sparrow and the Wisdom of Sa’di
    (pp. 206-213)

    WE WERE honored by a visit from His Majesty, the Amir, on December 4, the first time he has been here for over a year. First came a company of troopers and some Maxims (a cousin from the north made a try for the throne about two months ago and His Majesty is being very careful); then three or four motorcars full of sardars and other parasites, and finally H.M. arrived just as I was sitting down to tiffin. There was a shamianah erected on the river bank for an audience tent, and I got there in time to salute...

  24. Thieves and Budmashes
    (pp. 214-217)

    THE mustofi, chancellor of the exchequer, is also Naib Salar, second in command of the army, and Malik-al-Mamalik, Head Malik of all the Maliks. This official, Mohammad Hussain by name, generally spoken of as the mustofi and considered the second most powerful man in Afghanistan, began life as a common mirza. He rose to be kotwal during Abdur Rahman’s time, and many stories are told of his cruelties. Kohistanis who knew him then claim that he was an ambitious scoundrel who would tolerate no rivals. Besides, when prisoners escaped he would send to the bazaar for tribesmen to replace them....

  25. The Light of the Nation and the Faith
    (pp. 218-223)

    HIS Majesty, Siraj-ul-Millat-i-Waddin (Light of the Nation and the Faith), G.C.B., G.C.M.G., King of Afghanistan and Its Dependencies, is entitled to a salute of twenty-one guns when in British territory. The Amir had been made Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George, and has added a few decorations himself.

    When His Majesty went to India in 1907, the first and only time he was ever outside of Afghanistan, the British entertained him royally. He met Lord Curzon and Lord Kitchener, commander in...

  26. Waiting for Leave
    (pp. 224-233)

    IN THE Name of Allah! We got away the morning of the twenty-ninth, four of us and about eighty yabus. Quite a caravan with the guard and all. It takes a lot of language to load eighty yabus, but there were only two or three fights. The first day we reached Butkhak; then after a double march over the Lattaband to get out of the cold, we made easy marches and arrived here on the fourth of January.

    We are stopping just outside the town in a new sarai, a sort of mud fort with twelve little compartments inside it,...

  27. The Punjab Banking Company, Limited
    (pp. 234-240)

    WE GOT away on January 24, four of us, Crawford, Kelly, Fennell, and I. The first day we made a double march to Basawal, where we pitched our tent on the roof. The sarai is dirty and congested, but H.M.’s orders are that no one shall stop outside. It isn’t safe — many thieves and budmashes around. This is about the worst place on the way. The Amir’s hukm states that Europeans shall stop only at the regular government sarais on certain portions of the road, and that they remain inside the walls at night. Parts of the road are...

  28. Kohistan Bound
    (pp. 241-246)

    THE word for caravan is alwayskafilanorth of the Khyber, on the route to Kohistan. Camels and caravans generally conjure up visions of hot, sandy deserts. But practically all the camel traffic through Afghanistan is in the autumn and winter, for there is a fly on the plains in the south and the Jalalabad district which kills them off in the summer months. When the camels begin to moult in the spring they are turned out to graze. There is a government order that they are not to be used during this period.

    We left Peshawar on March 31,...

  29. The Past Is Past
    (pp. 247-251)

    ABOUT the first of June, we had a visit from His Imperial Majesty with several hundred retainers. I had the honor of one audience of about an hour, during which I got a few orders through — he was somewhat on his dignity. When downcountry, I told Oslers that unless I got more men and a few other things I did not care to go back, as there would be little prospect of getting the work finished otherwise. This was passed along. His Majesty very kindly sanctioned more men and wrote, “We will see Mr. J. as often as we...

  30. The Brown Man’s Burden
    (pp. 252-255)

    AFTER royal favors, the Amir granted me four months’ leave on December fifteenth to return to the United States and a pass to re-enter Afghanistan. When I had said goodbye to His Majesty, he sent the court interpreter with a sack of one thousand sovereigns and instructions covering purchases he wished me to make for him. No woman bent on Monday bargains ever started out with such a formidable list — guns, rifles, powder, “pistols for the gentry”; cooking utensils, cigar lighters, flatirons and “other domestic goods”; electric sewing machines, table lamps, in fact, all kinds of “electric things for...

  31. From the Koti Setareh Enclosure
    (pp. 256-263)

    I HAVE had my second audience with His Majesty today. Have been over at the palace since morning and am tired. First I had to wait from nine to eleven this morning, and then H.M. took me through the palace. After it was inspected and the heating of it discussed, the chancellor put through a little work. We stopped for tiffin at one o’clock and I was invited to sit at His Majesty’s left hand. Soon the conversation drifted to the war. I found the Amir fully informed, holding sensible views. In connection with the recent rumpuses that the border...

  32. Letters to David Fairchild
    (pp. 264-269)

    HIS Majesty was very pleased with the seeds that you had me bring out, and superintended the counting and classifying of them himself.* I assisted for about three hours in the translation — the big dictionary had to be referred to for some of the names. Field corn with large grains was put down as camel-tooth corn, and the number of grains to an ear was counted.

    The album of photos of fruit trees and plants was examined. The enclosed letter of thanks was translated and read. This was the best writing “We” had ever seen, and if you looked...

  33. Fed by the Snows of the Hindu Kush
    (pp. 270-276)

    IN THE name of Allah! Be in good health! May you live! After greetings: this being the Month of Rest and since I have a small amount of leisure, it occurred to me that a zamindar of note might be interested in the means of subsisting here in the valleys of the kingdom.

    Kohistan is an arid district; there has not been one-half inch of rain since last June. Nearly everything is under irrigation, with an extensive system of underground kariz from the many small streams which are fed by the melting snows of the Hindu Kush.

    The ground is...

  34. This Year Was as Much as Fifty
    (pp. 277-280)

    I HAVE been all mixed up lately. My roof got to the point where it was not safe, so I had to move out to have it replaced. Then on the tenth of December I went to Kabul to see His Majesty. He had not read a letter of mine nor had I been able to see him for nearly six months, and some of the material that is holding me up has been rotting in Peshawar. H.M. sent word that he would see me the third day after I arrived. I waited two hours at the appointed place. Then...

  35. Fool Mohammad Blows the Bellows
    (pp. 281-287)

    I HAVE given up getting a pipe man up here, so we tackled the riveting this week. Got forty thousand to drive. With patched-up forges we have made sets out of old crowbars, and handles for them out of wire. We have made wrenches and hammers out of old nails. We are making hammer men and other workers out of raw materials, bar the four Pathan riveters that I have been hanging onto for over a year.

    Fool Mohammad blows the bellows; Dusenbritches runs the heating of the rivets, and the Devil’s Brat passes them,andwe are averaging a...

  36. Kafir Idols
    (pp. 288-293)

    RECENTLY, when I was in Kabul hunting about for lost cases of machinery — found in all sorts of places — I stumbled on a bunch of twenty-six wooden idols, which were corded up on a veranda of an old godown in the palace enclosure.

    The late Amir, Abdur Rahman, had brought them back from Kafiristan. When he made a conquest of that country and gathered it into the folds of the true faith by the usual Muslim methods, he brought many Kafirs to Afghanistan, replacing them with his own people. This is an old Afghan custom which helps keep...

  37. Uncaught Sparrows Are Cheap
    (pp. 294-296)

    HIS Gracious Goodness paid us a surprise visit on the fifteenth of last month, the day we finished the pipe. He did not get here until sundown and he left about ten in the evening. Said he was pleased with the work, and I took the opportunity to borrow some cement from him. He said, “All right, but when you get yours, you must give me five barrels for four.” I told him I would if I had that much left. He kept on insisting on the five for four until he went away.

    His Majesty was quite pleased with...

  38. We Get Up with the Lark
    (pp. 297-302)

    YOU will remember that the main gates failed on February 5. His Majesty just heard of it a week ago, and he has made two appointments to see me within a week. The last one was a near thing — he was coming to me out of the Haram Sarai, got nosebleed, and turned back. Next day he took a purgative. He has had an attack of gout and is still very sick, though he is out in his car every day. Four months since the gates failed — no firman for the new ones signed, and it will take...

  39. Kabul of Recent Times
    (pp. 303-308)

    CHANGES come slowly in the East and have little effect on the lives of the natives. Of late years in the fashionable quarter of Kabul there are traffic policemen, and even frequent signposts which read “by the left side go,” with a hand pointing the way. The people observe these signs little better than the camels.

    An Afghan walking on the wrong side of the road caught sight of the Amir coming. He could not cross over without being detected, so he wheeled and started back in his tracks. This, of course, brought him on the right side of the...

  40. A Lamp Is Lit
    (pp. 309-314)
    A. C. Jewett

    HIS Imperial Majesty, the Light of the World, and his court are at Jalalabad. Baker and I started up the machines here about two weeks ago and lit a lamp after six and one-half years. We are a long way from being able to operate, but it is something to have made a start. The first time the lights were turned on, there were about ninety in the powerhouse. I waited until it was good and dark and then told my head Afghan, who calls himself the superintendent, that he could have the honor of switching them on. He almost...

  41. The Code of the Kingdom
    (pp. 315-319)

    HERE is an excerpt from a letter I have just finished writing to Mirza M’d Khan, the sarishtadar at Kabul. It may be of interest to you:

    About the three students, Habibur Rahman, Mohammad Ishaq, and Mohammad Hassan: it is well that you have them, better if they will take an interest in learning something. Send them along and we will try them. I have been hoping ever since I came here to find some Afghans with ambition enough to learn something about His Majesty’s work. Up to now I have seen none.

    Please tell the students for me that...

  42. Kismet
    (pp. 320-325)

    LAST June I sent in my resignation to His Majesty, dating it from the first of July to give four months’ notice as per agreement, if required by H.M. Pleaded that my private affairs compelled me to insist on going; and, also, that I had come here for three years only and had been here over seven. I got no reply.

    The plant could have been started one year ago in spite of war delays and poor layout, if His Majesty had not delayed and neglected to sign firmans. Except for connecting up some motors in Kabul, the plant was...

  43. Tamam Shud
    (pp. 326-328)

    WHEN they heard that I was leaving, my students came to say goodbye and told me my golden words would remain in their hearts forever. This was, of course, what the Afghans call “handing flowers”; besides, they wanted to see if I had any books to give away. Still I am very pleased that they did come. My sarishtadar, Mirza M’d, who has been fine all the way through, arranged to see the prince and to have the government papers, drawings, and invoices turned over to Azimoolah.

    Several days passed while I waited at Baber Sarai. Then Kawus Khan and...

  44. Glossary
    (pp. 329-335)
  45. Back Matter
    (pp. 336-337)